By Bill Parry
As a medical professional for more than 20 years, 52-year-old Emily Taylor of Rego Park was very much against drug use and never tried marijuana in her life. Than she began suffering from multiple neuropathies with chronic stabbing pains all over her body beginning six years ago.
“I had to try and control the pain with huge doses of opiates and other narcotics that left me useless,” said Taylor, which is not her real name because she asked that her identity be protected. “Then came the recurrent migraines that made me suicidal.”
When Vireo Health of New York opened the borough’s first medical marijuana dispensary last Friday, Taylor was the first patient through the door. After a consultation she left the facility, located at 89-55 Queens Blvd., just steps away from the Queens Center mall in Elmhurst, with a week’s supply of cannabis-based medication products in the forms of vapor and capsules instead of tinctures and oils that are also available.
“I’ve just had my third surgery and had a neurostimulator implanted in the small of my back to block the pain signals to my brain,” Taylor said. “Narcotics make you drowsy so you can sleep through the pain but medical marijuana doesn’t make me drowsy, so I can function. It is a distraction so you don’t hyper-concentrate on the pain and if you can distract the brain, why not?”
It was relief for patients suffering from pain associated with a variety of chronic and terminal illnesses such as cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis that led the state to pass the Compassionate Care Act in 2014. Vireo Health of New York was awarded one of five licenses in the state to manufacture and dispense pharmaceutical-grade medical cannabis under the strict protocols of the state Department of Health.
“For the first time in 100 years, marijuana is being sold legally in Queens,” Vireo Health of New York CEO Ari Hoffnung said. “This time it’s in non-smokeable forms like tinctures, oils and pills dispensed by licensed pharmacists. The images you see from California and Colorado will not be seen here. There will be no joints and no pot brownies.”
A patient seeking to alleviate pain and suffering can go to the state Board of Health website to register and receive a medical marijuana identification card for a one-time fee of $50. After a consultation with one of the nearly 200 physicians across the state who have taken a four-hour online course, a client can make an appointment for further consultation with a medical professional at the facility known as the Queens Patient Center.
One needs the medical marijuana identification card and the registered physician’s recommendation to pass through heavy security just to enter the building. If everything is in order, the pharmacist will retrieve the medical marijuana product from a safe and package it in an unmarked bag.
“It’s very much like going into any pharmacy and picking up your Tylenol or blood pressure medication,” said Dr. Laura Bultman, Vireo Health’s chief medical officer. “No images of leaves here, we will not have stereotypical imagery.”
Hoffnung said there would be no tie-died shirts or music in the background and even the signs on the building are low key so the operation appears more like a pharmacy or a doctor’s office. When the location was first announced, there was some concern and alarm from community members, according to state Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-Corona), who attended the opening.
“After they saw the precautions that are required by the provider, people have calmed down about it being here,” Aubry said. “Most people won’t even notice this place.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr